Friday, April 12, 2024

Movie Review: “Late Night With the Devil”

Though marketed as a horror film, Colin and Cameron Cairnes’ rigorously authentic “Late Night With the Devil” is, for all intents and purposes, one of the most successful comedies of this young year. In fact, it’s one of the hardest comedies to pull off; it’s a satire with a seemingly dated and esoteric subject—the late-night television battles of the ‘70s and onward, where well-coiffed white men waged Neilson wars with cardboard sets and rim shots, in a pre-internet era when the phrase “recorded in front of a live studio audience” actually meant something.

After a 10-minute introduction of much-needed backstory, the Cairnes Brothers structure their movie as a found-footage presentation of the master tapes from the most monumental night in after-hours TV history: a Halloween 1977 broadcast of “Night Owls with Jack Delroy.” Delroy, the consummate glad-handing host (played by a pitch-perfect David Dastmalchian) has been trailing Johnny Carson by a considerable chasm since his show debuted, but he’s hoping to turn the tide with a lineup of envelope-pushing guests for All Hallow’s Eve, among them Christou (Fayassal Bazzi), a professed psychic medium of indeterminate ethnicity; Carmichael the Conjurer (Ian Bliss), a former magician turned professional debunker of the paranormal; and a parapsychologist (Laura Gordon) whose most notorious charge, young Lilly D’Abo (Ingrid Torelli), can reportedly channel a demon while under hypnosis.

It’s all very much kitsch, until people start dying—an inconvenient fact for Delroy, who, while watching the ratings tick up with every increasingly unhinged segment, presses forward with the broadcast, even if he may be striking a literal devil’s bargain.

LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL – Still 3

“Late Night With the Devil” is a potent comment on television’s inexorable transition from ostensibly obedient entertainment to the anything-for-a-dollar exploitation that gave rise to reality TV. Yesterday’s bugs are today’s features: His scruples jettisoned, Delroy is all too content to oversee his program’s descent into the cultural downstream, even if—especially if—the mediums (or are they charlatans?) on his show seem to be tapping into the spirit of his deceased wife.

As much as the ruthlessness of ‘70s-era television is a target of the directors’ pitchforks, it’s their hilariously affectionate re-creation of that bleary-eyed milieu that quickly won me over. All of the hallmarks of late-night TV argot are present, with meta-winks all but invisible: the obsequious sidekick/bandleader who laughs at all of his boss’ groaners; the boozy, fast-talking producer; the awful color schemes of the set, with their clashing ribbons of browns and pale yellows; the casual sexism exuded by everybody in the old-boy’s-club of the studio; the corny station promos and Muzak bumpers. Its host is everyone and no one from decades of talk-TV lore. Delroy’s suit is so empty that it feels filled, at times, by Morton Downey, Richard Bey, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.

Equally important to establishing the movie’s verisimilitude are its paranormal bona fides—its many nods to the real figures that have lurked the fringes of the supernatural. Carmichael the Conjurer is a direct homage to James Randi, to the extent that he even carries around a blank check ready to be dispersed to the individual who can prove their paranormal abilities beyond the shadow of his colossal doubt. One character, only seen in faux stock footage, is clearly based on Anton Lavey, founder of the Church of Satan. There are references to Bohemian Grove, the all-male getaway that has stoked the fires of conspiracy theorists for decades; to the famous demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren; and, more obliquely, to the spoon-bending mystic Uri Gellar. Even the title of Delroy’s show, “Night Hawks,” nearly shares its name with the ‘90s radio show hosted by future Coast to Coast AM broadcaster George Noory.

All of these Easter eggs add up to a protein-filled feast for fans of both paranormal history and the much-creakier specter of ‘70s late-night television, a space of privilege and exclusion even as it strove for the widest (insomniac) audience possible. These days, the cameras are more high-def, and the sets look better, and the music is far less corny, but it’s still a white-guy palooza. It’s downright scary how little has changed.

“Late Night With the Devil” is playing now at Cinemark 20 in Boca Raton and AMC Pompano Beach 18.


For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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